When a Personalized & Non-Threatening Multi-Racial Heroic Narrative Pares Down the Complexity of Our Public School System and Venerates Free-Market Education Reform in the Name of Community Empowerment. Or Does it?

Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis (The Help) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, tells the story of two public school parents (Viola Davis’ character is also a teacher) who are fed up with the performance of their school (set in Pittsburgh), and persevere through a series of obstacles to enact a little known state law that allows parents to vote to adversely install new management into the school, and get their children’s school headed in the right direction (see the trailer below).  The little-known law in their fictionalized account closely resembles so-called ‘Parent-Trigger Laws,’ which have created much controversy around the country.

Advocates of parent trigger laws, now passed in 4 states, but being debated in at least 20, saw that putting key decisions about the governance of schools in the hands of parents is the best way to turn around broken schools.  To critics, the laws cater to a base ‘divide and conquer’ mentality that pits parents against teachers and administrators in the struggle to fix deep, structural problems well beyond the control of either party (see these cheery headlines from the Education Writers Associaton).  The film, which packages these laws in the heroic and heartwarming story of two mothers who work together to reform the school, has begun to draw much criticism.

Behind the film, and the parental trigger laws it venerates, are a web of players who fall squarely on the conservative, market-driven approach to public school reform.  Won’t Back Down is produced in part the Anschutz Film Group, owned by Philip Anschutz, who’s been involved in a host of right-wing causes (Americans for Prosperity, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s various fights, legislation to repeal bans on sexual orientation discrimination). They were also behind the documentary Waiting for “Superman”, which followed several children hoping to gain admittance into a charter school, was received by the educational community as extraordinarily anti-teacher and pro-privatization (it did win the Audience Award for best documentary at Sundance and the Best Documentary at the Critics Choice Awards, though).  In a New York Times interview,  Michael Bostick, of the Anschutz Film Group, wanted to create a feature film with actors after they had realized “the limitations of the documentary format.”

The laws themselves have been spearheaded by Parent Revolution, a group led by Steve Barr, the founder of a chain of non-profit charter schools in Los Angeles.  Parent Revolution has been funded by a slew of educational charities as well, including the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations.  The laws have received much bipartisan support.

But back to the film. From Parents Across America:

While the movie depicts an inspiring story of parental revolt, actual efforts to use the Parent Trigger have been driven by billionaire-funded supporters of privatization, and have sparked acrimony and division. None of these efforts has actually improved a school.

This type of conversation has been bubbling across the internet for some time now.  But it seems to have boiled over when the Anschutz Film Group, along with Wal-Mart, teamed up for an event full of celebrities called ‘Teachers Rock.’  Opposition to the event has come from many quarters, who insist that by casting the problems with schools as problems with teachers (and ok – if not them – their grubbing unions) that can be solved by pro-active parents who steer schools into the willing hands of private school management groups. Stoking the fire, even more, for the opposition, is the Orwellian language that cast the event as a pro-teacher event, and attracted Won’t Back Down’s Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Dave Groehl, and Josh Groban, among others. Jose Vilson, from the Center for Teacher Quality:

A meeting in Adelanto, California, of parent/teacher meeting opposing a parental trigger takeover. From the Washington Post. Photo Credit Bret Hartman.

 “You have these popular actors, who as well-intentioned as they may be, they may not know all the facts, but they’re willing to back up a couple of corporate friends of people maybe they’ve become familiar with.”

So – is Won’t Back Down deserving of the rebukes its getting?  Or will the fictional feature format allow it to explore the complexity of the public school system in a more nuanced way (interestingly, the director, Daniel Barnz, says he is “extremely pro-union”). The film comes out on the 28th of September; we’ll be able to decide then.

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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